Lost Gold of Pegleg Smith
The background to the story is quite simple. A one legged man (most likely named Smith), while crossing the desert, became lost in a sandstorm and decided to wait it out. In the morning, he climbed one of the nearby small hills or buttes to get his bearing. The top of this hill was covered with walnut sized black rocks that, as he would find out later,turned out to be a combination of gold, silver and manganese.
Easy enough, all you would have to do is get in your Jeep and head out to the desert, not a problem, should have it figured by the weekend. Unfortunately, hundreds of people have lost their lives thinking just that. The desert, while quite exquisitely beautiful, will not hesitate to take the life of someone unprepared for her “charms”. This is a very foreboding land; it is a land of instinct and survival. This person was, as I am sure, quite prepared to cross the desert. No matter the level of preparedness by any individual, any task will become increasingly difficult the moment a sandstorm hits. You will clearly understand his dilemma; visibility may have been so bad that you may not even be able to see your own hand, let alone a trail.
The name most associated with this yarn is Thomas L. Smith, noted trapper and early western frontiersman. Thomas was one of the earliest explorers, traveling with the likes of Sylvester Pattie, Milton Sublette and many others, making his earnings by trapping beaver in the west and selling them at rendezvous’ or yearly gatherings at Taos New Mexico. According to legend, and while in his trapping days, he was injured during a battle with Indians and had to amputate his own leg. There are many conflicting reports as to where the battle was and if he cut off his leg above the ankle or below the knee. But it is suffice to say, that his appendage and story, made him a well known celebrity within the trapping community.
Sometime around 1829 or 1827, Thomas along with fellow trappers Ewing Young, Dutch George (George C. Yount) and others, were camped on the north bank of the convergence of the Virgin and Colorado Rivers, all of which is now under Lake Mead. One afternoon Dutch George and a few other men decided to go out exploring and went about 2 miles east of the camp. It was in a side canyon that George supposedly found gold just lying on the ground; easy pickings, no mining tools were necessary. When the got back to camp, they were truly excited. But after Thomas looked at his sample, he declared it to be “native copper” and promptly made bullets out of the find. One has to remember Los Angeles was just a small hamlet at this time, and San Francisco wasn’t that much better. Besides, they were trappers, not miners, bullets meant food on the table and that was more important than rocks…
Through all of my own personal research, this would be the most accurate and complete story of Thomas L. “Pegleg” Smith’s actual involvement with gold in the desert. For the rest of his life he would tell people of his “lost gold” and conjure up story after story as long as they were buying the drinks, supplying the food or both. Although I am certain this Smith is most well known, he is most certainly not the real Smith.
Philip A. Bailey author of Golden Mirages (1941), has some of the earliest accredited writings about Pegleg. Mr. Bailey came to California from New Mexico in the early nineteen twenties. It was in New Mexico that a young Philip would sit back and listen to the old-timers tell their tales of lost treasure. When he came to San Diego, he would spend over twenty years researching old lost gold yarns and was the only one I am aware of that actually talked to someone who knew the real Pegleg’s partner. Mr. Bailey’s personal research from his book clearly state:
“This is the true story of and so far as I know, all of the story of Thomas L. Smith’s Lost
Pegleg Mine. There is no mention of the three buttes as landmarks in connection with this
story. The gold nuggets were not coated with black desert varnish. There were no maps made, the location is well described, it is in a valley or canyon on the Arizona side of the Colorado River, two miles east of a point opposite the junction of the Rio Virgin. The location is probably now under the waters of Lake Mead that are impounded by Hoover Dam.
But! And here is what has caused so much turmoil and confusion more than one hundred years since Dutch George walked away from the place where gold could be scooped up, easy.- there were two Pegleg Smith’s… This does not mean that there was a duplicate of old Thomas L. Smith, the Rocky Mountain Man, but about the time of Pegleg’s death in 1866 or possibly ten years later, another man, a prospector, now known as Pegleg Smith, did find a place in the Colorado Desert that could be identified by three small buttes, and near which he found nuggets of gold covered with black desert varnish. This discovery is also known as the Lost Pegleg Mine…”
A direct quote from Philip A. Bailey’s personal notes, approximately 1930.
Philip was out visiting many of the early haunts of the old desert travelers and prospectors; he continually visited places like Julian, El Centro, Dos Cabases, and Yuma as well as places south of the border. He interviewed many people who, at the time, were on the desert prospecting or searching for Pegleg’s lost gold. I also understand that there were many nineteenth century newspapers publishing their version of the Lost Pegleg yarn too, but to say that they were “sensationalize” would be a gross understatement. They also have a way of intertwining nearly every story that has ever been heard. Almost every Pegleg Smith yarn you will come across will tell the tale of the golden bullets, but this is not part of the real story. It is simply the most convoluted confusion you will ever read. It’s as if people are doing their best to make it fit in, and for those who have spent years reading and searching the clues, this Smith, Thomas L Smith is best left out.
The next Smith we encounter may have never truly carried the moniker; in fact, his name most likely was George Ham or John O Smith. An early noted Pegleg hunter and Desert magazine writer, H. E. W. Wilson, searched for well over fifty years looking for the elusive pair. Both were soldiers, and most likely assigned to Fort Yuma sometime in the mid to late 1800s. They may even be the same person, George taking the name of John O Smith. It’s difficult to verify if there really was a soldier by that name working at Fort Yuma, simply because he was not stationed there. He may have been assigned there temporarily from another fort, to provide much needed personnel, due to uprising or other situations. Which makes it difficult in verifying his existence; he could have been stationed at any fort in Arizona, New Mexico or beyond.
According to Mr. Wilson, George most likely would have been assigned to a frontier guard post, probably north of Fort Yuma on the Colorado River. It’s here where he would have heard about rich gold deposits somewhere in the Chocolate Mountains from traveling prospectors. It’s also important to keep in mind that at this time in history the California gold rush was in full swing and people were dropping anything they did to head west and get rich. One day, George most likely would have deserted his post and headed for the mountains, and this is why he may have called himself Smith. He may have suffered some sort of wound during skirmishes with Indians or possibly the Civil War; this could have contributed to him being thought of as a pegleged Smith.
George headed out to the desert and was looking to strike it rich, but instead, he was found some time later by other travelers or prospectors staggering deliriously clutching a saddle bag. He was taken to San Bernardino where a Dr. Albert DeCorse helped nurse him back to health. In gratitude for the doctor saving his life, he drew a map showing the location of the find and handsomely paid the good doctor in gold. Unfortunately, he didn’t adhere to the doctors instructions to nurse himself slowly back to health and later died.
Dr. DeCorse tried in vain to find the gold, but not being a mining man or a person familiar with the desert, he was unable to locate the mine. He eventually moved to Yuma and became the physician at the Yuma Territorial Prison. It’s been said that he kept one black nugget in his house until a flood wiped out everything in the 1900’s.
Even though there are many more candidates for the real Pegleg, I feel that it is important to go back to Mr. Bailey’s research. One of the principal people that Mr. Bailey interviewed was Charles Knowles, a deputy sheriff from El Cajon and one of the original old timers. Mr. Knowles was born in 1865 and at a young age he helped rescue a little boy, but severely burned his hand. It was disfigured for the rest of his life. By age of twenty, Charles was working a mining claim near Coeur d’Alene when a man named Price approached and introduced himself father of the child he saved. It was from Mr. Price that Charles first learned about Pegleg’s lost gold.
According to Mr. Price, around 1855, he and a man who claimed to be Pegleg Smith, were working as guides from Yuma to Los Angeles and San Diego. Tiring from the heat and the hard work involved in getting emigrants across the desert, Mr. Price decided to find work in Los Angeles. About a month later Pegleg came into Los Angeles and showed Mr. Price his blacken treasure. According to Pegleg, he left Yuma and traveled for about two days taking “the usual route” and camping on the New River near the Slough Lakes. They decided to get an early start since it was about a thirty mile trek to Carrizo with virtually no water along the way. That morning they noticed that the mules were lose and it was nearly two hours later before they were all rounded up and packed. From here Mr. Bailey tells it best:
“About the middle of the afternoon Smith saw they were in for a bad sandstorm and an
hour later it was blowing so hard they could barely make headway against it. It was almost impossible to keep to the trail, for the blowsand covered it up or blew away all traces of it in less than half an hour. The outline of the mountains ahead was completely lost and even the gap leading to Carrizo was so badly blurred that Smith was not sure they were headed for it. Instead of letting up as it began to get dark, the wind blew harder. At last it quieted a little; but it was not until they began to ascend a gradual slope that kept getting steeper that Smith knew for certain they were off their course. They had wandered into one of those ramp-like canyons to the north of the trail they should have followed.”
Come sunrise the storm was gone, and Smith now can try and acquire a bearing as to where he was. After all, he had wandered through the storm for most of the afternoon and late into the night, with very little visibility and little else except dead reckoning.
He traveled up the canyon a ways until he saw three small buttes, and thought it best to climb the middle one to scout out the terrain. Once atop, he was truly convinced that he was lost and feared that he might have to retrace his route in order to figure out where he was. This was not the making of a true desert guide and his reputation would surely suffer if this was his only option. According to Bailey Pegleg saw “nothing but Bad lands and he knew would have to take the long way into Carrizo. While up there he noticed that
the ridge was a sort of hogback made of three or four buttes connected by saddles“. So the three clues would be Badlands, hog backed buttes and he knew he was north of the trail. If we look at the last known place he camped, the Slough lakes, and considering that the trail he was on was the old Butterfield stage route. Then factor in approximate miles knowing about how long he traveled, this would most likely place him somewhere in Barrett Canyon.
Barrett Canyon is a long and curvy canyon that runs about two miles long, and is located within the Carrizo Impact Area. So safe to say you cannot go there, unless you are willing to pay a hefty fine (we have heard reports of $3000 per person) and or possibly die. Live ordnance is still being pulled out of this area and it can cause a serious amount of damage if it explodes. The Navy has used this area for an air to ground impact bombing range as early as possibly the late forties, and up until 1959. The type of ordnance that was used, was anything from a small 3 pound to a 10,000lb bomb, including the 500 lb. semi-armor-piercing Tiny Tim rockets. The Navy has tried to clean the area multiple times, but still deems it has a hazardous place to go and does not allow anyone to enter the area, without special permission, which you will never be able to obtain.
But, how am I so sure that this is the fabled “ramp like canyon”? Simply said all of the clues are here, the canyon, the Badlands, and even the hog backed buttes. Besides it does have a history of gold and even some mining has been done in the area. There a story about a placed called the Teal Placers, from the book “Imperial Valley’s Lost Gold” by Paul Gillett and Peter Odens, which covers the same spot. An early homesteader by the name of Wes Van Derpoel was camped out east of Calexico around 1901, when a man named Teal and a teenage boy approached his camp. Teal was on his way to work a placer deposit he had found a couple of years before and he discussed his deposit quite openly, which was and still is rare for a miner to do.
According to the book, Teal knew that Van Derpoel was an excellent miner and offered him a partnership in his adventure. He estimated that he would be able to dry wash about $700-800, which was a considerable sum back in 1901, but Van Derpoel declined. He thought that his upcoming homestead would bring more than Teal offered. A year later when Van Derpoel found out that Teal had died he talked to his relatives and thought he might be able to locate his find and for the next 35 years he searched. During the first meeting Teal told Van Derpoel that he camped in Barrett Canyon and that; “you get into the wash and go west until it turns right- and that’s where my camp is.”
In 1920 he found some old horse shoe nails and was sure he had found his lost camp. Paul Gillett states that in 1928 he found a “wedge-shaped mesa or plateau between the mountains and Carrizo Wash proper, maybe 300-400 acres. There are small washes or water courses on the flat. If you dig in the sand of these washes at a depth of 12-24 inches, you’ll find clay bedrock that will show color on a dry washer”. So it’s safe to say that in the early 1900’s gold was being mined and this wasn’t the only isolated case.
There was another mining character by the named of Hank or Henri Brandt who also mined gold from the north end of the wash during the same time as Teal. He had a bad leg and sometimes referred to as “Ole Slue Foot”, but I’m sure no one said that to his face. Hank was tough man from French and German stock, nearly 6ft, 200lbs with bushy eyebrows. He would work his mine in the winters, sold his gold in San Bernardino when he was done, and then stayed in San Diego for the rest of the year, living on his findings. He supposedly did this for nearly ten years and when he passed away, there was a fortune under his bunk.
Still not convinced, then maybe you have heard of the Lost Sheepskin Placers? Paul Gillett recalls that a farmer from the San Joaquin Valley arrived in El Centro in 1928, and his name may have been Moon. The farmer was in the company of a young American whose father came from Mexico shortly after gold was discovered in California. In his possession were some gold nuggets and a sheepskin map left to him and his family, after his grandfather had died. Paul was still in high school and had to get permission to take the day off so that he could go with these men to look for the gold. “I’m sure the map was genuine, if it was a fake it sure was a good job. The gold was tarnished and almost black on the outside- just the way the nuggets of the famous Pegleg Smith mine, remember?” It seems the young man’s grandparents came up from Mexico around the 1870’s via the Butterfield trail but became lost and separated from the rest of the train. When they finally arrived at the Carrizo station, they were told they missed the Los Angeles cut off and to go back and travel northeasterly towards Kane Springs. “After traveling some seven to eight miles from Carrizo, they crossed a wash in which some Indians were mining placer gold” Paul said. “They took a closer look at it and found that three or four feet under the sand, there was clay that acted like bedrock. On the clay and in the cracks there was gold in quantities to make a fortune.” The point of reference for this find, was a
hill on the western edge which had a natural rock formation in the shape of a cross, the Indians called it Mission Hill. If you stood at the base of the rock you could easily spot the placer find. Moon’s grandparents bought some gold from the Indians and finally settled in San Joaquin Valley, but never returned to look for more.
I know some people will look at this and call it folklore, does not contain any truth to it, but I beg to differ. We know that the Carrizo Badlands are nearby, black nuggets were found in the area, Barrett Canyon is north of the trail and if spend time with Google Earth, you will find three to four saddled buttes. With all of this being located in the middle of the Carrizo Impact Area, it would also explain why this yarn is still elusive and most likely will remain that way long after I’m gone.
For now, this legend will continue to be debated and discussed around campfires and desert cabins for the next generation and then some. But in a way, isn’t it better that it is still lost, and that the romance and lure of discovering a true lost treasure is still there, beckoning the next wide eyed soul in search of adventure. After all, the true adventure is in the search, not the find…